Diminishing returns: Is California running out of ways to lead voters to the polls?
This Tuesday, voters in Long Beach turned out to elect a new state senator. Odds are that’s news to you—even if you happen to live in Long Beach. A preliminary tally indicates that less than a measly 7 percent of the district’s registered voters cast a ballot.
Even by the subdued standards of an off-year state Senate special election, single-digit turnout marks a historic low.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some Democratic legislators in California—a state that already makes it easier to vote than almost any other—are trying to make it even easier. Assemblyman Evan Low, a Silicon Valley Democrat, is the latest to take up that cause.
Low’s bill would make election day a state holiday, giving the day off to state employees and closing schools and college campuses. Supporters say the holiday would allow more schools to serve as polling stations and let college students volunteer as poll workers.
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“Other states are looking at increasing barriers to entry,” said Low, noting the recent proliferation of state voter ID laws. “We do the opposite in California. We believe that we are a stronger democracy by having more people participate in the process.”
Low has also proposed changing the state constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote. If it passes the Legislature by a two-thirds margin, it would require voter approval—assuming it survives any legal challenges.
Such proposals have become an increasingly easy political sell here. With President Donald Trump and other Republicans using unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud to call for new restrictions on the franchise, voting rights have become a rallying cry for California Democrats. Whatever they can do to amplify turnout among “low propensity” voters—statistically those who are young, low-income and Latino—generally happens to work to the Democrats’ electoral advantage too.
But the evidence is still out as to whether these measures have a significant effect on voter behavior one way or the other. And given the political and legal challenges facing this year’s latest round of proposals, state lawmakers may have run out of obstacles to knock down between the California voter and the ballot box.
One study that took into account registration restrictions, the presence of voter ID laws and automatic voter registration programs anointed California the third easiest state for voting. Only Oregon and Colorado make it easier—and the researchers did not even account for some of California’s most recent reforms.
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California allows would-be voters to register on election day, to vote well before an election and to so by mail, and to pre-register as long as they will turn 18 by election day. More than 200,000 teenagers pre-registered in the lead up to last year’s election, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The state also pays the postage on mail-in ballots and automatically registers eligible voters when they visit the DMV (in theory, anyway).
Of the various policy levers that lawmakers can pull to make it easier to vote, Kati Phillips, spokesperson for the voter-rights advocacy group Common Cause California, identified the most effective: automatic voter registration, early voting and wide-scale vote-by-mail programs.
She described Low’s proposal as “a cherry on top,” though maybe “not dinner.”
Benjamin Highton, a political scientist at UC Davis, is a little more skeptical. He says that the time, hassle and other “costs” of voting are “contributing factors” to turnout—but they’re relatively small ones. Same-day registration might boost turnout by “five percentage points or less typically,” he said.
Additional changes to election law are likely to produce diminishing election returns, he said.
“When costs are small,” he added, “you can’t reduce them that much more and the explanation for lack of higher participation is more on the benefit side.”
In other words, it’s possible that most non-voters in California eschew voting not because the process is difficult, but because they don’t see the value in doing so.
“That’s a much tougher problem for policymakers to solve,” said Highton.
There is some evidence to back up Highton’s claim. In the Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey conducted after the 2018 midterm elections, just over 1 in 10 nonvoting Californians said they stayed away from the polls because they were either “too busy” or faced overly long lines at polling places—time constraints that might be solved with a holiday.
California law also guarantees employees two-hours paid time off to go the polls and gives voters the ability to register to vote my mail online.
Meanwhile, 45 percent of non-voters said they either didn’t know enough, didn’t like their choices, had no interest, simply forgot or were not registered to vote.
Another possible reason for lower turnout, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, is voter fatigue.
Whereas voters in parliamentary democracies might only vote for one party over another a few times every decade, Californians are invited to vote in primaries, special elections and general elections, and are expected to puzzle over byzantine initiative language and determine who might make the best city auditor.
As Kousser put it: “There’s almost no profession you can have that would fully qualify you to vote down a California ballot.”
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Both Kousser and Highton are part of a group of University of California researchers studying the effects of California’s recently implemented automatic voter registration program. They say it’s still too early to draw any conclusions.
California aside, Kousser noted that the United States is still a relatively tough place to vote compared to most economically developed democracies.
Australians and Belgians, for example, can be fined if they don’t show up to the polls.
“We’re so far behind the starting line of other modern democracies that elected officials in states like California…are always looking for ways to motivate people,” he said.
But in Sacramento, the effort to ensure that voting is easy enough may have already peaked. Bills to establish an election day holiday have been introduced three times in the Legislature—twice by Low. Both of Low’s past efforts have been left to die in the Assembly appropriations committee, reflecting the fact that even his Democratic colleagues worry it might not be worth the cost and disruption.
Shirley Weber, a Democratic Assemblywoman from San Diego, expressed those concerns during the bill’s first committee hearing earlier this month.
Given the various ways in which California law already makes it convenient to vote, she wondered “whether it’s necessary at this point.” She nevertheless voted for the proposal, as did the other Democrats on the committee.
But according to Low, a holiday is not simply about removing yet another impediment to voting.
Setting aside a day to “to stop and pause” would provide “an opportunity to focus everyone’s attention on civic engagement and reinforce the importance of voting,” he said. “There’s nothing more American.”